Condor and photog

Yes, that’s a California Condor on the left, and no, the photographer is not a professional ornithologist, and no, this is not is some barely accessible wilderness.  In fact, the Pacific Coast Highway is only about 20 meters behind the photographer and there are about a dozen other people awaiting their turn for the condor photo op.

This is a far cry from my previous encounter with a condor.  In 1982, I and two of my sons decided to make a try for the condors.  We drove from Alamogordo, New Mexico, and camped on the top of Mount Pinos overlooking the Sespe Valley, the site of the last wild condor population.  We were prepared to spend five days on Mount Pinos waiting for a condor.  The first morning was great condor-watching conditions: clear skies and a million miles visibility.

After a couple of hours we had accumulated a nice little group of would-be condor watchers, but no condors. One of the group was an experienced condor finder and he told us that the way to attract condors was for one of the party to lie down on the ground and twitch from time to time. After a while, my son Hugh decided to give it a try.

Shortly thereafter, a speck appeared on the horizon. We watched it carefully. The wing posture was consistent with condor, but it could have been an eagle. As it drew closer, excitement grew as the bird took a “double dip” flap, a condor flight characteristic. By this time, it was apparent that the bird was very far away and was thus much larger than an eagle. A small bird was harrying the condor.

We watched all the way in. Judging from the amount of white under the wings, the bird was probably two or three years old. It finally passed right by us, about 100 feet away and at eye level. The little bird that was harrying the condor was a Red-tailed Hawk. It was a thrilling encounter, well worth the 900 mile drive.

The Sespe population continued to decline.  The last remaining individuals were rounded up in 1987 and entered into a captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo.  The program was successful in producing new condors and in 2003,  condors began to be released into the wild.  There are now four free-flying condor populations in Southern California, Northern California, Arizona, and Baja California.

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Now, as much as I enjoyed getting up close and personal with these condors, I cannot help but think that this may not be the best way to bring back a famously endangered species.  These birds are part of the Ventana Wilderness population.  I am confident that No. 4 (top picture) is an adult, and judging from the lack of black on the heads of the two above, they are probably also adults, or nearly so.  But what are they doing hanging out with people?

Local experts state that condors are very predictable along this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, 40-50 miles south of Monterey. They have apparently made their way from the wilderness where they breed to the clifftops by the sea, where presumably they are foraging along the shoreline. It is a puzzle to me what they can be foraging on since condors are large carrion specialists, though it has been suggested that they are feeding on carcasses in seal and sea lion rookeries.

The fact that they are so approachable indicates that they are habituated to human contact seems to me to be worrisome. Recently, bottle tops and other human detritus have been implicated in the deaths of some young condors in this very population.  (The Vermillion Cliffs population in Arizona, which is considerably further removed from concentrations of humanity than these birds, has not to my knowledge suffered similar losses.)

I don’t see what can be done about it really- condors will be condors and if they want dramatic sea views, there is little we can do to stop them. However, this tendency may presage the ultimate failure of this population. Restoration money is so hard to come by, even for a big box-office species like the condor, that a highly public failure may lead to a loss of confidence in the ability of scientists to carry out projects like this. The ramifications could be far-reaching and severe.

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